The Resurgence of the Pre-Built PC
For ages, PC gamers have advocated building your own desktop. Component shortages have pushed things towards pre-buitl devices.
When I was growing up in the 90s and early 00s, buying a desktop straight from the manufacture was a fairly common practice for regular consumers. I grew up playing games on prebuilt Dell desktops. However, that market began to dwindle: laptops became powerful enough for what most people needed, and soon the iPad offered an even easier solution for most people to be connected technologically in the ways they need. The one major market desktops unequivocally reigned supreme was gaming.
However, the PC gaming community labeled building your own desktop as not just the cheapest or most flexible way, but the way “real” or “serious” gamers go about it. Geek culture loves to gatekeep. Handling off-the-shelf components in a desktop is not rocket science — most of it is intuitively self-evident. Though manufacturers often offer component customization options, nothing rivals what you could accomplish yourself by buying each part.
There is room for incompatibility, but a lot of that comes down to ensuring that the motherboard and central processing unit (CPU) are compatible and that the memory (RAM) paired with it is appropriate. These days, storage drives and graphics cards are standardized enough to be compatible with most. Internal SATA cables connect drives to the motherboard be they solid-state or hard drives — or even a Blu-ray or DVD drive if you still care for optical media.
Graphics cards use one of a few types of standardized “PCI Express” slots designed to allow ports to peek out the back. Such slots can be used for other expansions to the core motherboard capabilities as well, such as Ethernet, WiFi, or a dedicated sound card. Sometimes, the bulk of a graphics card will crowd out an adjacent slot, but most motherboards can at least support the dedicated rendering power a great graphics card provides.
All of this is a dream to anyone who loves to tinker even a tiny bit — me for much of the late 00s and 2010s. And then the shortages hit. PC components, especially graphics cards, are particularly hard to find for a perfect storm of reasons: demand from cryptocurrency miners, COVID-induced supply chain problems, and the semiconductor shortage due to our unprecedented growth in electronics demand. All of these will be ameliorated — eventually. Analysts are predicting some time well into 2022. This has not just affected PC gamers. The new Playstation, Xbox, and Switch consoles are all facing manufacturing constraints. The current Switch model is still often tricky to find.
However, when a company is able to negotiate bulk orders of components straight from the manufacturer, they are often able to produce at least a moderate supply of ready-to-use devices. Profoundly, more PS5s exist than PS4s did at this point after launch! Though Apple’s decision not to announce MacBook Pros powered by Apple Silicon during the WWDC 2021 event is likely due to constraints on their semiconductor supplies, they have managed to keep a steady supply of products on shelf due to their strong negotiating power as a tech titan.
When us humble personal PC builders need to negotiate, we have virtually no power. We buy from resellers that buy wholesale from manufacturers, except now everyone is scooping up the entire supply the resellers get as soon as it is in stock. Some of this rapid buy-up is not even the cryptocurrency miners themselves — it’s people seeking to make a buck re-reselling to the miners.
The prebuilt gaming desktop provides a way to get a card — but only if it is packaged within everything else one would need for a computer. Crypto mining rigs utilizing graphics cards are designed to hook up arrays of dozens of them to one device. Buying a prebuilt PC just for the card is wasteful for their needs, which is exactly why they are all the rage, for once, in their existence in the PC gaming community.
A new line of Nvidia cards released in May 2021 has hardware-level changes designed to detect hash calculations for cryptocurrency and limit the rate to be slow — effectively, by making the card unable to work as it should with the wasteful reason people are buying them in bulk, the hope is more cards can go to those who need them for their intended purpose. But demand still far outpaces supply as of this summer. Card manufacturers are eager to cash in on this unprecedented demand, so most cards are still manufactured without this limitation.
More end-product manufacturers looking at desktops on the device level have enabled developments in synchronization of RBG LED lights throughout components in a PC gaming rig — even, in many cases, the mouse, keyboard, or even speakers. As more manufacturers of individual components conform to these standards, personal use tinkerers are able to leverage these nifty customizations more easily as well.
This age of prebuilt PC glory is surely not slated to last for more than another year. Imbalances and supply and demand will sort themselves out, and the cultural norm will become, once more, to build gaming PCs from scratch. What remains to be seen is how PC gaming will react to the industry's march towards the ARM processor architecture. To put it in simple terms, everything is moving towards a style of processing chip first pioneered in mobile phones. The new Macs, which are blowing everything else out of the water, use this technology, ARM. However, PC gaming is built around x86, an older Intel tech. Windows currently supports both — but applications, especially games, do not. Almost every PC game released for Windows in existence today is for x86 processors.
For now, at least be glad that, if you are yearning to get into PC gaming, there are viable options, even if one of the usual routes is temporarily a turmoil of scammers, scalpers, and coin miners. Prebuilt PCs also have long served as a great starting point if you wish to continue to make component-level upgrades until you have done the Ship of Theseus with your computer.